Prelude To War:


Chief Lone Wolf, like all the South Plains Indians, had only the dimmest notion of the historical forces working upon his people, but by the spring of 1874 nearly all the camps were smoldering hotbeds of resentment. As they understood it, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 had guaranteed their reservations to them, for their free, unhampered, and “exclusive” use, but the white buffalopoachers had destroyed practically every buffalo herd in the northern part of the territory. It was Indian land and Indian buffalo, and the whites had stolen from them. The government had promised to provide for them and had lied. Except for their agents, who they discovered had no real power, Washington did nothing. It was now evident to the Indians that the white government had no intention of carrying out its part of the Medicine Lodge bargain.

By the spring of 1874 the situation was ready to explode. In the tepees there was talk of war and killing, of driving the white man from the land, but as yet there had been little action. The Indians had surrounded and picked off isolated parties of buffalo poachers for years, but there had never been any general offensive, partly because they did not have any leader capable of organizing such an offensive. During the spring of 1874, however, such a leader finally emerged, in the person of Isa-tai, the adolescent but highly volatile medicine man of the wild Quahadi band of the Comanches.

He was a young warrior, deep in grief for his uncle, who was one of those killed in the Hudson skirmish in Texas. As yet he was untried in battle, but throughout the year 1873 one thing had become certain to the Comanches: his medicine was strong. He said he had brought the dead back to life and that he was immune to the bullets of the white man. That in itself was not particularly impressive, since other great shamans had claimed those feats, but here Isa-tai surpassed the others. He claimed, and was supported by witnesses, that he could swallow and vomit forth at will wagonloads of cartridges. He said he had ascended above the clouds, where he had communed with the Great Spirit. This also witnesses swore to. Many believed in him. A few may have doubted his self-proclaimed messianic role in driving away the white men, preferring to see him as just another young buck trying to get up a revenge raid for a slain relative—as indeed it was proper by the Indian code for him to do—but no one could doubt that early in 1873, before the uncle was killed, when a brilliant comet had appeared, it was Isa-tai who predicted it would disappear in five days’ time. The comet vanished on schedule. Later on it was Isa-tai who had predicted the blizzards of the 1873-74 winter, and that had firmly established his reputation. The medicine of Isatai was strong indeed, and the young man was doing his best to incite a war against the whites.

By May his influence had grown to the degree that he did an unprecedented thing: he sent out runners, summoning all the bands of the Comanches to attend a Sun Dance. It was a bold step, for the Comanches had never even been assembled all in one place before, let alone made tribal medicine. The Sun Dance was a ritual foreign to their culture, although among the other South Plains tribes it was an annual occurrence. In Isa-tai’s mind the move was probably to accomplish two things: first, to capitalize on his newfound notoriety by assembling an audience to whom to preach his antiwhite doctrine and, second, to recruit the war party.

News of the young firebrand Isa-tai reached Agent Haworth, who wrote of him, tongue in cheek, to Hoag: “They have a new Medicine Man, who can accomplish wonders. Horse Back says he can furnish them an inexhaustible supply of cartridges, suited for any gun, from his stomach. Certainly a very valuable man to have around in time of war. He can also raise the dead, having recently done so.” In a much more serious vein he also sent a peace feeler to the Quahadi camp, but their answer was not encouraging, telling him, in effect, that if he kept out of the way he would not be hurt. If he interfered, he and everyone else the Quahadis could find at the agency would be put to death.

Precisely what happened at the war council has never been learned with great certainty. Most definite information about it came from the Penatekas and the friendly Yapparika chiefs, Quirts Quip and Ho-weah, who bolted the ceremony and returned to the agency, although they did so at no small risk to themselves, as the hostile faction threatened to shoot their horses and strand them afoot if they did not commit themselves to the war movement. Haworth did learn that Isa-tai had staged a mystical display of his magic, utterly convincing the skeptics that they would receive divine protection in their war effort. He also learned from Quirts Quip that Mexican Comancheros were present at the encampment and that the liberal consumption of whiskey served mostly to harden the stand of the war faction, though they tended to make up their minds in drunken confusion. The leaders, said Quirts Quip, “have a great many hearts … Make up their minds at night for one thing and get up in the morning entirely changed.” In addition, Ho-weah told Haworth that the Cheyennes had ridden into the council brandishing no fewer than eighty mint-new breechloading rifles.

During the ceremonies, which were held at the very fringe of the reservation, some of the war party slipped back in to Fort Sill and stole about fifty head of stock from the agency corral. Grim and sobered, Haworth reported the incident, adding: “I am at a loss to account for their actions, though [they were] much disappointed at the shortness of their rations.” Still he hoped, as he had written before, that “this cloud will, like many others since I came here, pass away, without a storm.”